Language Matters -- Who the F*** Do You Think You Are?

If you only know my from my written communications, you may not know that I have a tendency to be a bit blue in my language choices amongst friends and colleagues.

And that’s the way most of us are.

But when it comes to the written word, we have the option for sober second thought. Yet some choose not to exercise that option -- often to the detriment of the businesses they represent and their personal brand.

Whether we like it or not, we are often representatives of the companies we work for, so we have a responsibility to take that into consideration. And if we hold a position of authority or official representation (owner/president, management, public relations/communications), we have an even greater burden to conduct ourselves appropriately.

Language use is a personal choice, but one that has ramifications beyond personal preference.

I tend to draw the line between verbal and written profanity. In general, swearing is more accepted amongst friends and colleagues as it tends to be a more casual environment. Just as gallows’ humour and light-hearted cynicism and joking is fostered in an environment of conviviality, so too can more casual expressions of language.

That tends to be the case in most workplaces – especially those broken down into specific departments where team-building and positive siloing is encouraged. And I’m sure the kitchens of the restaurants I frequent and the break rooms of the stores at which I shop are riddled with the remains of F-bombs.

But watch when a client or customer comes into the environment. Whether it’s retail, corporate, or service-industry based, the posture changes, formality increases, and a polite “How can I help you, sir/ma’am?” replaces the jocular “What the f--- do you want?”-esque banter.

In person, we’re more casual or forgiving of language. From verb tenses to agreements; from punctuation to profanity, we’re willing to let much more go. But when we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) that sense of immediacy – from a business perspective – is gone.

I expect someone startled in a store by a loud noise to jump and say, “Holy sh**!" I don’t expect them to Tweet it.

The written form allows us to reflect upon what we say – especially if you apply my five-second rule (which states, in effect, don’t hit “send” on any social media post without sitting on it for five seconds. It prevents heat-of-the-moment stupidity and affords a moment to reflect upon whether you truly want to make that statement). And, for a business or a person in a position of authority, there’s never a reason to fall into a trap.

I love the quotes from this Inc.com piece on swearing in the workplace: “Passion is subjective – one person’s passion is another person’s crazy,” and “If you revert to more basic, four-letter language it puts a question mark to what other things you’re being immature about in running your company.”

But where I find this article falls short is in prefabricating an excuse for people who choose to use profanity in their communications. Somehow, swearing is akin to personality, as opposed revealing a personality deficiency.

The article states that swearing in a workplace can help to create a bond. In fact, swearing is not the cause of that bond – it’s an effect of the bond’s existence, as described above. It’s that convivial nature that allows for more casual discussion. And only verbally.

In print or on the Web, if the only way you can express your personality or ideas is through cursing, then you run the risk of undermining confidence in not only your abilities and your leadership qualities, but also – by extension – your business.

You may not think it has an impact, but there are several studies and publications that suggest workplace profanity can lead to anything from employee discomfort to violence.

And likely you’ve already experienced how swearing can diminish perception and value. Think about your corporate social media efforts: when you receive a comment to the effect of, “You guys suck. You’re f***in’ morons with your heads up your collective a$$es! I hate your product because…*”

(*actual quote from a previous job)

Well, you’re not reading the ‘because’, are you? You’ve already dismissed this commenter not because of the value of his or her statement, but how it was phrased. “I am displeased with your company. I feel you’ve lost sight of your customers’ needs. I hate your product because…” says the same thing, but in a way that increases the likelihood of people reading – and valuing – the information.

To me, it’s not about stats or theories. It’s all about risk, reward, and need.

I’d rather let my thoughts, ideas, and efforts speak for themselves without the need of artificial punctuation through profanity. And I’d rather not risk alienating a portion of my audience or my customer-base simply because I’m too lazy to find a more effective linguistic solution. Sure, I could say, “If people are going to be offended by my language, then I don’t care if they read…” But I do. And so should you.

Those are your customers, potential clients, and potential referrals you’re alienating, simply because you couldn’t take the time to phrase your commentary better.

Whether it’s on my personal site or in my professional endeavours, not only do I want to present myself and the company that I’m representing in the best possible light, but I also want the focus to be on my idea – not its presentation. It's increasingly an issue for the younger set -- teenagers and young adults -- who forget that privacy on social networking isn't always private. Knowing that potential employers will be scouring your social networking presence, why run the risk of creating such a negative impression?

I swear; language matters. In print or on the web profanity runs the risk of assigning one more four-letter word to your business and credibility: lost.

Questions Answered

Does swearing my devalue my content?

Is swearing on-line acceptable?

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